Category: Opera

Review: William Tell

Victorian Opera does justice to Rossini’s monumental opera

By Leeor Adar

For having one of the most recognised overtures globally, it is a surprise to learn that Rossini’s William Tell left Australian shores in 1876 and only returns now in 2018 (Halley’s comet has a better track record).

At 5 hours in length, it is certainly palatable to learn that Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, Richard Mills, has cut the production down to 3 hours with “unfussy, lucid staging”. The content of William Tell is explosive and powerful. It has the grandiosity in concept of Wagner’s work, but is concerned less with magic and more with the good fight of everyday citizens.

Guillaume Tell is a Swiss man fighting for the freedom of his people from the oppression of Austrian forces, and with scores of cast and chorus, the production needs one hell of a baritone to command the stage. Armando Noguera as Guillaume Tell is a revelation; he embodies the power, charisma and magnanimity to play the hero of this tale, and does so with enormous spirit. His voice is superb, and he is fortunate to be joined by the mesmerising Colombian tenor, Carlos E. Bárcenas, who plays Arnold, the son of the late elder Melcthal (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), is torn between the duty to his people and to his love for the Austrian princess Mathilde (Gisela Stille).

Bárcenas also had the mountainous task of the vocal range required of his role, and he managed the most gorgeous notes with real feeling. The feeling unfortunately did not translate between his character and that of Stille’s, and it was the love between father and son that really stole the show in the performances between Noguera and the marvellous soprano Alexandra Flood (Guillaume’s son Jemmy).

Victorian Opera 2018 William Tell  © Jeff Busby (3)
Featuring Carlos E. Bárcenas and Gisela Stille. Photograph by Jeff Busby.

The tale follows the usual preparations for battle, and the tense encounters with darker forces; most notably, the infamous arrow to the apple scene, which left the audience wondering how Victorian Opera planned to stage such a complex magic trick. Unfortunately, the arrow did not pierce the apple, and it’s a surprise that Guillaume’s son was spared from the comically maniacal clutches of Austrian villain Gesler (Paolo Pecchioli). No doubt this will be rectified for future performances, and it will be a treat once achieved.

In terms of Rossini’s music, I would not say the production will be memorable for the sheer beauty of its pieces, despite an excellent orchestra conducted by the talented Mills. What will remain with me, however, is the large ensemble and its wonderful cohesion and power conveyed which was at times breathtaking. It is certainly an achievement by Director Rodula Gaitanou to maintain dramatic impact with such a vast cast. Having witnessed previous works of Victorian Opera, I would say this is a landmark for the company and showcases their capacity and ability to harness such a wealth of talented creatives from around the world.

Given the scarcity of performances in over one hundred years, I would recommend you take yourselves to catch the spectacle. William Tell will continue to run until 19 July at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling Ticketmaster on 1300 723 038.

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Victorian Opera Presents CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Wonderfully weird and charming

By Caitlin McGrane

Victorian Opera’s production of Leoš Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is a deeply moving portrayal of youth, the passage of time, and the pain of loss. Janáček’s immense skill is clearly evident in the juxtaposition of the soaring score and the conversational libretto. It struck me as a kind of fever dream combination of Animal Farm and the 1996 live-action film of Wind in the Willows featuring most of the Monty Python cast – a wicked combination of socialism, humour and fuzzy critters keeping the sting in the tail of the Vixen.

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I adored the score, and conductor Jack Symonds and his orchestra masterfully kept the production moving even during some slow moments. In fact, as much as I enjoyed the libretto, the opera could have been performed entirely without words and I admit I would have enjoyed it just as much. Despite the serious subject matter, the production is playful and light; director Stuart Maunder has clearly had a great deal of fun during the creative process, and it shows most clearly during the moments when the animals and insects are on stage.

The opera opens with a whole forest of animals and bugs anthropomorphised by the Adult and Children’s Choruses beautifully setting the stage for the feverish weirdness that is coming. The animal costumes (Roger Kirk), particularly the frog (Lisha Ooi), are magnificent, and are honestly one of the highlights of the show. The eponymous young Vixen (Ruby Ditton) plays with her mother (Celeste Lazarenko), and is captured by the Forester (Barry Ryan) as a pet for his children. She grows up, and the adult Vixen (Lazarenko) transforms into a Marxist feminist – taunting the other animals for their backwards views and yearning for her freedom. After a wildly funny hen massacre (RIP the marvellous Cockerel) she flees, meets a charming Fox (Antoinette Halloran) and falls madly in love.

Meanwhile, the Forester basically falls into melancholy drinking with his friends the Schoolmaster (Brenton Spiteri) and the Parson (Jeremy Kleeman), ruminating on the missing Vixen and mercilessly taunting the Schoolmaster for loving a local gypsy woman Tyrenka (Danielle Calder). Frankly, I could have done without the weird human subplots: the Vixen’s story was far more interesting than all the male human characters combined, and I really didn’t need the inclusion of Tyrenka’s wedding to the unfortunately sappy Harašta (valiantly portrayed by Samuel Dundas).

The whole ensemble performed wonderfully and with a sense of mischievous playful fun, particularly Lazarenko and Halloran (who I was secretly hoping would be an anthropomorphised lesbian fox duo). Despite such misgivings, there’s so much to be charmed by in this opera: the choruses perform their animal alter-egos with inventive physicality, and the singing from every cast member is an absolute delight.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the weirdness of Cunning Little Vixen, and it seemed the opera’s playfulness transferred to the audience, as they suppressed giggles both times the cast sang ‘Looks like she has a new muff’. I’d recommend this show for anyone who enjoys inventive costumes and/or subtle proto-feminism: it was a beautifully crafted ride.

Cunning Little Vixen is now playing at the Arts Centre. For tickets or more information visit: http://www.victorianopera.com.au/season-2017/cunning-little-vixen/

Victorian Opera Presents THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

Clever, charming and tons of fun

By Leeor Adar

Squeals and giggles erupted from the audience of Victorian Opera’s The Princess and the Pea on Saturday afternoon. The audience is very young – the youngest I’ve seen for the Victorian Opera, and it fills me with gladness. The lingering question for opera remains as to how to attract future generations, and the Fables for Season 2017 is an operatic call to arms for Victoria’s smallest residents.

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Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is reimagined under the clever guardianship of Victorian Opera’s developing artists Candice MacAllister (Design) and Alastair Clark (Direction). This colourful and vibrant production is short and sweet at only 40 minutes, and enough to ensure the little attendees don’t go stir crazy. Composed by the late Weimar Germany’s Austrian-born Ernst Toch, the singers clearly take pleasure in performing to their craft to such a young audience.

This production was a clever way to present the tale and the marvels of the opera to its young audience. Set as a show on television station, ‘Mythical Mysteries!’ the story is presented with the humour of forgotten lines, dropped scripts and the hustle and bustle of a television set. It’s slapstick and generally silly, but the appealing performances of the cast ensured that despite the German accents, the audience understood the action. MacAllister’s set and costume design was bright and artful, which consisted of a giant television frame that lifted the veil to behind the scenes.

The story follows as expected, with a desperately in love Prince (James Egglestone), a humbly dressed Princess (Olivia Cranwell), and a Queen (Kathryn Radcliffe) who has high hopes for her princely boy. Looks are deceiving, as the moral of the story drums into the chirpy youngsters, and a plan concocted by the crafty and energetic TV Host (Dimity Shepherd) to plant a pea in the Princess’ mattress reveals the lost girl’s true identity… and they all lived happily after.

You can check out the Victorian Opera’s Fables 2017 season here: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/discover/seasons/victorian-opera-2017 which will showcase work that will entertain audiences of varying age groups.

Image by Charlie Kinross

Lyric Opera Presents THE JAPANESE PRINCESS

Delightful

By Joanna Simmons

Lyric Opera presents the first in its’ trio for the 2017 season, and Camille Saint Saens’ The Japanese Princess is a wonderful choice of work. Having never been performed in Australia; this one-act comic opera is accessible and excellent. The story is simple so the main feature is the music; played beautifully by the Lyric Chamber orchestra and sung by the experienced cast of three. It’s a treat for the ears, and with dialogue in English and subtitles for all the French Songs it defies any old notions that opera is dusty fat ladies warbling in foreign tongues for hours.

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We follow the story of Kornelis, an art student who becomes infatuated with all things Japanese, and much to his fiancée (and cousin in the libretto) Lena’s dismay, becomes obsessed with the portrait of a mysterious Japanese Princess, Ming (not a Japanese name.) Ming makes Lena question herself, her relationship and Kornelis’ sanity. The voluptuous orchestra ornately guides the story with a nod to the orient with songs with colourful language and robust emotions.

Lena, played by Kimberly Coleman (and alternated with Kate Macfarlane) was naturalistic and strong.  She plays up the comedy where needed and connects with the other players and the music. Robert Macfarlane as Cornelius’s (alternated with Hew Wagner) dulcet tenor tones were right on the money. I wish his acting was as strong, as there were a lot of comedic moments that could have been more detailed with facial expression and timing, and other moments that felt forced. Arisa Yura as Ming, is subtlely woven into the story and is captivating to watch. She dances skillfully with a fan, her delicate hands well placed; yet then does some turns and steps that break character and genre, which feels disjointed alongside the music and set.

The intricate set designed by Christina Logan Bell that feels like the inside of a Japanese fan or tea house, complete with tatami mats, is beautiful and memorable. It, combined with the well-plotted lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw, transports us to this wonderous other world. Lucy Wilkins’ costume design fits well with the set and the era, adding colour and beauty with Ming’s kimono, and a neutral- everyday feel to Cornelius and Lena. Director Miki Oikawa has tastefully bought this production out to be one that is accessible in our modern day, in partnership with artistic director and conductor Pat Miller, whose passion and knowledge is evident, and should be highly commended.

The part I loved the most about this show was the beginning, where Miller turned around from facing the orchestra and invited us to ensure that our phones weren’t going to disturb the performance, but encouraged us to use them, to share with people what we are doing, and push opera to become something that is spoken about, shared, liked, snapchatted, hashtagged and all. In our world of watching videos for 30 seconds before getting distracted, it can be difficult to produce theatre to challenge our palates whilst tickling them too. This show is engaging and enchanting, simple and satisfying for the ears and eyes.

Lyric Opera’s The Japanese Princess played at Chapel Off Chapel, 11-18 March, 2017

Image by Sarah Walker

Victorian Opera Presents THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

A classic reawakens

By Rachel Holkner

The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault is one of the classic fairy tales, and one of my least favourites with its thin plot and troublesome resolution. I was not familiar at all with Respighi‘s opera before seeing this production, but I enjoyed it immensely. The story is fast-moving and compelling, and the music delightful. It was originally written in 1922 for an Italian puppetry company and it has been brought into the twenty-first century quite cleverly by Victorian Opera‘s artistic director Richard Mills and director Nancy Black.

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A cast of singers dressed in contemporary attire recount the story as it is acted out by talented puppeteers manipulating some remarkable puppets designed and built by Joe Blanck. They moved about an uncluttered stage with a gothic atmosphere, gorgeously lit by Philip Lethlean throughout.

Solely responsible for the movement and action, the puppeteers threw themselves, and occasionally each other, around the stage. In particular the humour and physicality of the Prince (performed by Vincent Crowley, sung by Carlos E. Bárcenas), with his Dirty-Dancing-era Patrick Swayze bearing, was spectacular. In gradually losing his puppetry aspects until nothing more than a pocket square remained, this became one of the strongest moments of the show as The Prince shed the trappings of privileged life to succeed in his arduous journey of discovery.

A large part of the production effort went into the lavish and eye-catching puppets. Although the inspiration for their design is said to have come from Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen, there are clear layers of influence from other Golden-Age fairytale illustrators such as Arthur Rackham and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. There is some disjoint as a consequence, with the Blue Fairy being by far the weakest design in both shape and movement, yet one of the most prominent on stage. The smaller puppets such as the cat and spindle were far better developed, their movements lending Disney-esque moments of humour to the performance.

In bringing the story into the present – it is modern times apparently when the Princess is awoken –  there was the opportunity for the creative team to bring in some pop-culture references. This had a two-fold effect for me. Firstly I was annoyed that in trying to escape some of the less pleasant aspects today’s world they suddenly appeared on stage before me, and yet it gave a telling opportunity to reflect on that aforementioned “troublesome resolution”. The expectations for and treatment of young women today are at complete odds with the 1620s culture of the source tale. You could not conclude a story nowadays with a happy-ever-after via an non-consensual kiss. (Or more, should you choose to read further back than Perrault). Without giving anything away, on reflection, the recasting of Mister Dollar was very clever indeed.

The vocal performances of the entire cast were simply outstanding. Of especial note were the work of Elizabeth Barrow as the Blue Fairy and Raphael Wong as the King. One small wardrobe choice which did constantly irritate however was The King’s relaxed interpretation of the costumer’s memo as ‘casual wear’ instead of the neat casual the rest of the cast wore. I would hardly expect a King to ever be dressed in cargo pants and a hoodie.

The live score by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Phoebe Briggs, was the finishing touch on this highly enjoyable evening. It would be a wonderful introduction to the world of opera, particularly for families.

Dates: 11-18 March 2017

Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse

Tickets: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2017/opera/the-sleeping-beauty

Image by Charlie Kinross

Victorian Opera Presents ‘TIS PITY: AN OPERATIC FANTASIA OF SELLING THE SKIN AND TEETH

In praise of a cabaret goddess

By Bradley Storer

A sinister puppeteer dangles a dark-haired poppet on strings, twisting her to his amusement and satisfaction, as he sings of the evening ahead with hints of the debauchery and debasement to come. The star of the evening, the international cabaret star and dishevelled diva Meow Meow, misses her entrance to the Melbourne Recital Centre (of course) and is forced to drag around props and costumes before she ascends a staircase to become a glorious goddess of the ancient world. We are promised bite-sized pieces depicting the goddess’ many daughters throughout the ages, from Ancient Greece to the modern day.

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Meow Meow is, as always, a combination of high-diva glamour and self-deprecating humour, always ready with an off-the-cuff remark that never fails to make the audience laugh. Her magnificent voice is on full show here, from a gutsy alto to a light classical soprano all utilized to maximum effect throughout the night. Her leading man Kanen Breen takes on many roles in the performance, from lover to pimp to bishop, with a ghoulish visage, an elastic physicality and a thrilling tenor voice that rings to every corner of the Recital Centre.

The text of the performance, from composer and librettist Richard Mills, is quite dense and delivered at a rapid pace – the performers are miked but not amplified loud enough, so often the words blended into a flurry of sound, and climatic lines to songs were drowned out by the orchestra. The vignette structure of the performance also seems extremely rushed, with one or two sections going by so quickly and without remark that I found it hard to decipher what they were.

The show also never seems to decide quite clearly what their subject matter is. At the start of the show the proclaimed intent seems to be examining the evolving perception of prostitution throughout history, but what emerges seems to be more a comment on attitudes towards women and femininity in general rather than prostitution. While this is certainly not a problem in itself, not making the focus of the work clear only serves to add to the audience’s confusion. The inclusion of three dancers (Alexander Bryce, Patrick Weir and Thomas Johansson) as bit players to Meow Meow and Breen’s escapades, while wonderful in their dancing and delivering good performances, never seem adequately utilized enough to justify having them in the show.

The only few moments that work and connect with the audience are those where Meow Meow is left alone onstage to simply sing – in these moments, she is tender, heart-breaking and most importantly real. In the finale where Meow Meow sings about the troubles of modern times, a line about ‘building a wall’ around her heart becomes an uncomfortably contemporary parallel to the path of current politics.

Tis Pity feels like it needs re-structuring and reconsideration of its overall message before it can truly work as a theatrical piece, but having a star such as Meow Meow back on our stage is a delight worth savouring.

Venue: Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, 31 Sturt St, Southbank

Dates: 4 – 8 February

Times: 7:30pm

Tickets: $118 – $30

Bookings: melbournerecital.com.au, (03) 9699 3333

Image by Karl Giant

Peking Opera Presents WARRIOR WOMEN OF YANG

Lavish and captivating spectacle unites history, culture, theatre and nations

By Jessica Cornish

Warrior Women of Yang hit the Regent Theatre stage Friday night, whether we were prepared for it or not. The high-quality production directed by Zheng Yiqiu was produced by the relatively new China National Peking Opera Company.

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In a world of entertainment where women are so often depicted as victims that suffer at the hands of men, it was refreshing to see a show in which the women were portrayed as strong leaders. Warrior Women of Yang was set during the Song Dynasty (960 AD- 1279 AD) and followed the tale of Commander She Tai Jun who led the Song Army into battle against Western Xia.

As a long-time lover of western theatre and confessedly ignorant of other forms and traditions of world theatre, I attended the night’s performance unsure of what was to come. However, I don’t believe the experience was lost on me. One of the company’s stated ideologies is to foster cultural exchange between the Chinese people and the people of the world, and I was enraptured to experience being one of those people through this production.

The performance offered an abundance of auditory and visual stimuli. The traditional Chinese orchestration under the direction of Zhang Fu was precise, piercing and exciting. This was coupled with high-pitch fluctuating intonation patterns of the performer’s vocals, a skill incomparable to anything I had experienced before. It was impossible not to become immersed in the music that was all encompassing and continuous: it seemed there was not a moment of silence or stillness throughout the exciting two-and-a-half-hour performance, and the standout performer for the evening with a strong stage presence and an equally impressive vocal quality and ability was Zhang Jing.

The dazzling fight scenes were incredibly well-choreographed and easily the highlight of my night. It was impossible not to get lost in the constant acrobatics. Bodies were effortlessly tossed through the air, accompanied by the thrill of drums and cymbals. The sword-play scenes were also truly something to behold and the mixture of tassels, feathers and colours had a hypnotic effect, and set the room into an almost trance-like state. The costumes throughout were beautiful, often characterised by brightly coloured silks and accompanied by flowing cloth backdrops designed by Zhao Jinsheng.

The audience loved it, and ‘Hao!’ (the Chinese equivalent of ‘Bravo!’) was heard shouted at the stage throughout the night. Visually enthralling and musically engaging, and with English translations were provided throughout the evening so I knew what was going on at all times,Warrior Women of Yang was a unique and educational experience for all Australian audiences.

Warrior Women of Yang was performed on Friday and Saturday 11-12th of November 2016, at 7:00 PM at Regent Theatre, Melbourne, VIC